Urban Agriculture or More Housing?

One block of greenhouses is all that remains of Portola's garden industry, and its future is uncertain.

(Photo by Mira Laing)

On a quiet corner of Portola, just down the steep embankment of a reservoir, sits an overgrown city block. A six-foot-tall fence, bent and broken in places, surrounds the skeletons of old greenhouses, their pointed roofs hidden among overgrown blackberry bushes. It’s quiet and sunny — birds hidden among the dense growth sing their songs, and as trash blows by it catches on the tall grass that pushes against the fence. The wild lot is all that remains of Portola’s founding industry: flower gardens.

The plot of greenhouses at 770 Woolsey St. was built in the 1920s, one of 19 that financially sustained the neighborhood’s population, which, at the turn of the 20th century, was largely immigrants from Malta and Italy. It was part of the University Mound Nursery, owned by the Garibaldi family, and these greenhouses somehow survived the neighborhood housing boom of the 1970s and ’80s, staying open until 1994.

But as the land became more and more valuable, the temptation to sell it for housing development grew too great. After more than a decade of different negotiations with buyers and developers, the 2.2-acre plot was bought at the end of June by Group I for $7.5 million. The developers plan on constructing 60 single-family homes in the space.

The proposed community agriculture center. (Image: The Greenhouse Project)

While the city is in an undeniable housing crisis, the preservation of Portola’s history and this lot of land is front of mind for one neighborhood group that is working hard to save this landmark. The Greenhouse Project strives to rebuild the plot and turn into an educational urban agriculture center, as a nod to the neighborhood’s flowered past. Their vision had begun to be vetted in a professional study, which investigated the site’s conditions and developed financial estimates. It has much of the neighborhood’s backing, but this recent sale throws a big wrench in the plan.

Group I has yet to submit a proposal to the city for the site, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where an urban farm would win over housing — the beloved Hayes Valley Farm that sat on the site of the former Central Freeway was torn down in 2013 to make room for luxury apartments.

But for now, the greenhouses remain, home to foxes, feral cats, and six-foot-tall overgrown blackberry bushes heavy with bounty. The fruit alone make the trek to the quiet corner of the city worth it.

Check out more stories from our Portola issue:
Neon Revival: Portola’s Avenue Theater Returns
After a quarter million dollars in grants and community fundraising, the neon sign at Avenue Theater will finally be turned back on.
Cutty Bang: The Real San Francisco Treat
It’s a DIY alcohol adventure with a hip-hop sensibility.
Eating Your Way Down San Bruno Avenue
From Four Barrel to loco moco, the Portola’s commercial strip is extremely diverse.
Portola Has the Coolest Librarian in San Francisco
You can’t be more dedicated to the kids than Nicole Termini Germain
Portola’s Pronunciation Quandary
This neighborhood’s name is at the center of an oratorical debate.
Reimagining (Tiny) Vacant Lots
Through grants for public artwork and landscaping, Portola brings new life to empty land near the highway.
McLaren Park Wants to Step Out of Golden Gate Park’s Shadow

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